By Christina Maxouris, CNN
Plains, Georgia (CNN) — More than 14,000 people have written to Jimmy Carter for his 99th birthday.
The wishes, posted in a digital mosaic created by The Carter Center, come from around the world: an Ohio family thanks the 39th US president for being an example of “how to live”; a Georgia resident recalls shaking his hand during his run for governor; a man sends best wishes from Switzerland.
There are notes from Ecuador and Costa Rica, Europe and Australia and from every corner of the United States. Many thank Carter for his humanitarian service. Others – a few famous, most not – share admiration or memories of brief encounters. Some say they love him.
The messages’ renowned recipient – with a brief exception last Saturday, during a peanut festival – has largely stayed out of the public eye since opting seven months ago to start receiving home hospice care following a series of hospital stays. Carter’s wife, Rosalynn, has dementia, the non-profit they founded announced in May.
The couple, married for 77 years, has been spending slow days – likely among his last, their closest relatives acknowledge – together at their home in the southwest Georgia city of Plains, population: 700-ish.
And here, the small, middle-of-nowhere town Carter helped put on the map is also perhaps the center of his legacy, where hundreds of annual visitors exchange stories with residents who know him not as the former commander in chief but as the man who sat by a friend’s bedside during a difficult illness, who sent an encouraging note when a new restaurant owner’s business slowed and who regularly spoke about his faith on Sundays in his longtime church.
“He was only president for four years. He was governor for four years. But he was a resident of Plains, Georgia, for 99,” his grandson, Jason Carter, told CNN. “And that is, fundamentally, who he is.”
‘I don’t know a better person’
On Wednesday morning, four days before Carter’s birthday, the single-block downtown of Plains was – as it usually is – quiet. A rainstorm was slowly clearing. Tractor engines drove back and forth over the railroad tracks that separate a skinny highway from Main Street.
Doris Day’s “Sentimental Journey” played over public speakers.
Along a row of colorful brick façades, every downtown store was open for business. Among them: Plain Peanuts, where owner Bobby Salter spent more than a year in the early 2000s perfecting his peanut butter ice cream recipe.
It’s Carter’s favorite, he says.
Two doors down, Philip Kurland sits by the register inside the Plains Trading Post. He runs the business – with hundreds of political campaign buttons dating back to Millard Fillmore – with his wife. The pair was driving through Plains more than 30 years ago when they spotted an empty building for sale and decided to call this place home.
Kurland had had his doubts about whether the Carters really lived in Plains, he admitted – until the former president and his wife showed up at the store to welcome them.
In the past few years, the Kurlands had reduced the store’s hours to just two days a week. But when Carter announced in February he would begin hospice care, Kurland began opening the store all seven days, he said, as a way of giving back. “I talk to people every day of the week and listen to their stories about Jimmy Carter and how they interacted,” he said. “People want to tell their stories and reminisce. And I want to be there to listen.”
Some say they campaigned with Carter; others met him at a book signing. Still others say he helped them through hardship. Kurland, who never shies away from talking politics with customers, once asked a visitor how they thought Carter as president handled the Iranian hostage crisis.
“The guy looked up and smiled,” Kurland recalled.
“And he said: ‘I’m still alive.’”
Kurland also has stories of his own, including how Carter spent an hour with him when he was laid up with a bad respiratory virus. “I remember he got my life story. I remember I was a little bit surprised because he already knew some of it. And I remember … I was happy about being sick, that I got the opportunity to really get to know the president.”
“I don’t know a better person,” Edge said. “He didn’t look at you differently because you were a different color, and I liked that.”
It was that attitude, Kurland said, that helped create the culture here: “In Plains, everyone might not like each other each day, but everyone respects each other, and if you have a problem, everyone’s going to help you,” he said. “And I think a lot of that is because President Carter has set the tone.”
Jan Williams stopped into Kurland’s store that Wednesday morning to say hello. They briefly talked about her upcoming birthday, just two days before the former president’s. Williams once taught Carter’s daughter, Amy, in school, and she traveled with them during the 1977 inauguration.
She named her own daughter after Amy Carter in honor of the family. And when Carter came back to Plains, she would listen to him teach on Sundays at church.
“One of the things he said at church all the time was if everybody could love the person in front of them, wouldn’t we have a happier world – instead of thinking about who they are, where are they from, what kind of life do they live?” she said. “And just show some love. And he was so good at that.”
“We may be a small town,” she added. “But we’ve produced, in my opinion, one of the greatest Americans.”
Keeping up with the news – and baseball
The town, and Carter’s nearest kin, know these are likely the former president’s final days.
But they don’t guess at how long this chapter will last: After all, the nonagenarian has already defied the odds many times, from his journey from the Plains peanut business to the White House to beating cancer in 2015 to spending so long in end-of-life care.
“He always surprises us, so we’re not terribly surprised it’s been seven months,” The Carter Center CEO Paige Alexander told “CNN This Morning” on Friday. “But he’s surrounded by love, and that’s what counts.”
The Jimmy Carter Presidential Library and Museum has planned birthday events this weekend, including a movie screening and a naturalization ceremony for 99 new US citizens.
Carter, meanwhile, is physically limited but stays up on the current news, including on how his favorite team – the Atlanta Braves – is doing, his grandson said. And he’s very much aware of and heartened by the tributes that have poured in over months since his hospice announcement.
“I was not ready to deal with just sort of the everyday grief part,” Jason Carter said. “In that way, going through this publicly has been wonderful because of the support and it’s really also because we’ve had this extended time, given us the time to, on a personal level, process what’s happening, process our relationships with him and with my grandmother and really spend some really, really important time as a family together.”
The family will gather privately to celebrate Carter’s birthday Sunday, his grandson said.
For now, his grandparents “are at home, in love and they know who they are,” he said, “and you don’t get more from a life than they’ve gotten and they know that, and they are at peace.”
Carter will ‘always be alive in Plains’
Even after he’s gone, Jimmy Carter will “always be alive in Plains,” Kurland said. And as his next birthday approaches, neighbors here know even though they don’t see Carter out and about anymore, his life’s message still spreads.
“He’s passing the torch, that we all need to be kinder and be more giving and caring and considerate and loving,” the shopkeeper said. “So, I don’t look at it as, one point he’ll be passing on; he’ll be passing the torch for us to be better people and do better.”
Down the street, Bonita Hightower thinks about the former president a lot, too.
“If he came from here and he became the 39th president, I wonder what I can do. That’s how I look at it,” she said.
While the 68-year-old has never met Carter, he’s played a big role in her life. Hightower opened a restaurant in Plains some two months before the Covid-19 pandemic shut down the world. When customer traffic slowed, she questioned her decision to open a business in the small town.
Then, she got a call.
It was from Carter’s staff, who shared that the couple had recently ordered a take-out meal from her restaurant – and were fans of her food. “It was like that message from President Carter was to encourage my heart,” Hightower said.
The next year, his staff asked her to make a meal for his birthday’s party, she said.
“That gentleman, he was our president for a moment, but then he became – I heard this, and I think I’m going to adopt it – then he became the world’s president,” she said.
“I think he came back home so maybe somebody would get ignited.”
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